This article is a conceptual introduction to the key peculiarities of Canadian French intended for learners of French of all levels.
Students, visitors, and friends at times ask me this question, with different underlying motivations. Students might worry about whether they’ll be able to use what they learn interchangeably in Canada and in France. Advanced learners and visitors (including French people) want to learn the differences in order to understand Canadians and/or for social integration purposes. Friends might simply show some curiosity in the topic and want to celebrate linguistic diversity.
If you start off learning a foreign language, you want to make sure that you do not head in the wrong direction and align your strategy with your learning goals. Take, for example, European and Brazilian Portuguese. Or the vast variety of Arabic dialects. German and Swiss German. The gap between each pair is so wide that early beginners don’t want to waste time studying the variety that doesn’t serve their purpose. The same goes for highly idiomatic expressions and slang: unless the intention is to interact with a very specific community of speakers it might be better to stay away from them.
This article is a short conceptual introduction to the key differences between Canadian and standard French in terms of writing, speaking, vocabulary, and pronunciation. By Canadian French I mean the language used in the province of Québec. Some other Canadian provinces have French-speaking communities with their own linguistic peculiarities, but since Québec represents by far the largest group of Canadian French speakers, I will not draw distinctions within Canada. On the other hand, some people might think of standard French as what is used anywhere in France, which is not the case either. However, this article will not discuss the varieties of French within France either.
In Writing and Grammar-wise – No Worries
Both France and Québec have institutions in charge of establishing linguistic standards on their respective territory. These are known as the Académie française and the Office québécois de la langue française. While they operate independently from each other and make decisions of their own, such institutions ensure that school curriculum (both for children and university students) are aligned with the idea of standard French. In the long run, everyone benefits from French-speaking countries agreeing over what French is.
The first thing to note is that most experts agree that in writing, Canadian French does not differ enough from standard French to make it much of a point of discussion. Similarly, there is also close to zero difference in terms of grammar. When Canadians are tested for their French knowledge proficiency, this is standard French being tested, including minor differences in vocabulary as compared with other varieties of the language from around the world. This is good news for everyone: as far as the backbone of French is concerned, people learn and teach the same thing.
In Speaking Is Where The Fun Begins
When people allude to how Canadian French differs, they usually refer to how it is spoken and used in social settings. Of course, the more informal the setting is or the more rural the region is, then the bigger the difference in speaking begins to show. I will discuss next what makes Canadian French a distinct variety in terms of vocabulary, speech contractions, and pronunciation.
Canadian French language is deeply rooted in history. Without going into historical details, Canadian French developed over the last 250 years with a great deal of the language evolving independently.
This historical weight impacted Canadian French in two ways. In a first step, Canadian French was first and foremost influenced by English. As French Canadians engaged with the English-speaking communities, English vocabulary was borrowed to ease communications and fill in the gaps. In a more general fashion, it became customary and socially acceptable to borrow from English. This is pervasive in today’s Québec, where people pay ‘cash’ but not ‘en argent’, ‘bet’ on something instead of ‘miser’, and feel that things ‘clash’ more than they ‘détonnent’.
In informal conversations especially, tons of borrowed vocabulary items are used. In the process they often extend or change their meaning or change in form. To give only one example, a suffix corresponding to a typical French verb ending («-er») may sometimes be added to English verbs or nouns (e.g., such as «twist»). The new word is used as a verb by French Canadians («twister» means «to twist» and much more). The same goes for ‘caller’ (literally, ‘to call’). Hence English words can either be formally used or evolve to take an altered form or meaning.
A second very distinctive feature of Canadian French is how it’s retained a lot of old French words. This means that some words that have been long forgotten in France for instance are still in use in Canada. The word ‘breuvage’ was commonly used during the Renaissance and eventually gave birth to ‘beverage’ in English. These two share their meaning together with ‘boisson’ (standard French). A kid’s toy is sometimes referred to as ‘bébelle’, a word derived from 18th century’s ‘baubel’. Someone’s ‘cour’ still refers to his ‘jardin’ while it no longer does in France. Such words unavoidably sparks the curiosity of anyone interested in linguistics and in the history of languages.
Although this can’t be compared to the influence of English, words have also been borrowed from native American languages and are therefore officially listed in Canadian French vocabulary. I.e. ‘Toboggan’, ‘wigwam’, and ‘caribou’ are but a few examples.
Standard French on its own frequently uses contraction. Its grammar includes rules such that in certain cases, when consecutive words respectively end and begin with a vowel, the vowel at the end of the word should be dropped. Here are some examples:
- Je mange un croissant. [I eat a croissant.]
- J’aime les croissants. [I like croissants.]
- Je ne mange pas un croissant. [I don’t eat a croissant.]
- Je n’aime pas les croissants. [I don’t like croissants.]
In a similar fashion, French-speaking Canadians tend to apply rules of speech contraction of their own. This results in words that can’t as easily be told apart, which gives a hard time to non-Canadians. They might then feel like Canadians speak faster, with a greater speech flow (i.e., number of words per minute). Here are two examples:
Je suis à la maison. → J’suis à ’ maison. → Chu’à ’ maison.
C’est sur la table. → C’est su’ la tab’. → C’est su’a tab’.
Standard French has a set of sounds named nasal vowels. These usually occur whenever a vowel is followed by an ‘n’ or ‘m’ within one single syllable. For example: ‘train’, ‘mon’, ‘un’, ‘banque’.
Canadian French nasalizes more such vowels. In a similar fashion as with old French vocabulary, some phonetic distinctions have been retained while they disappeared in France, which has some argue that modern Canadian French is phonetically richer. Its pronunciation also includes sounds which have shifted in certain specific context (ex: the /t/ tends to sound like /ts/ in front of ‘u’ or ‘i’).
Much has been said about the accent and overall Canadian French over the years. Just as with any other language that has evolved from its mother ship, some people tend to have mixed opinions about it, taking the motherland (i.e., France) as reference for absolute truth. Whenever people don’t know much about the history of a language, they tend to think exclusively in terms of ‘right’ and ‘wrong’; and in the process, often fail to acknowledge that languages evolve. When some words used to be pronounced or things named in any given way 200 years ago and have remained as such here but not there, what is the right pronunciation? Such questions might simply be wrong-headed.
Want to Learn the Specifics of Canadian French?
All in all, I think that learning the specifics of Canadian French becomes interesting once you have acquired solid foundations in (standard) French. In any event, I recommend taking a look at the references below. And don’t forget that whatever your situation is, italki is always the right place to get yourself started.
A quick yet stimulating overview of Canadian French by the YouTuber Solange.
Some Canadians give their account of what Canadian French sounds like on personal blogs. Here are lists of expressions and vocabulary:
The collection of language learning books “Assimil” publishes an interesting introduction to Canadian French under the title “Québécois”. Though I can relate to much of what the book lists, some of its content is outdated or not nuanced enough.
Additionally, here is an article with a similar tone, click here to read.